Elsewhere

Socialogy: Interview with Gordon Ross

How is social business like urban traffic?

http://pro.gigaom.com/blog/how-is-social-business-like-urban-traffic/

I posted this over at GigaOM Pro:

I think there is an important parallel between urban travel and social business. There is a now well-understood but counter-intuitive law in traffic engineering, called Braess’ paradox, where closing streets can lead to better traffic flow.

Linda Baker, Removing Roads and Traffic Lights Speeds Urban Travel

The brainchild of mathematician Dietrich Braess of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, the eponymous paradox unfolds as an abstraction: it states that in a network in which all the moving entities rationally seek the most efficient route, adding extra capacity can actually reduce the network’s overall efficiency. The Seoul project inverts this dynamic: closing a highway—that is, reducing network capacity—improves the system’s effectiveness.

[…]

It turns out that you don’t have to actually close streets off to cars to get these effects, you can institute what is called ‘shared streets’, where traffic lights and markings are removed, forcing drivers to operate on a more social basis: making eye contact with other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. These approaches share a common basis: movement in the system requires multilateral agreement. In Braess’ world, unilateral optimization is blocked, and in shared streets, social interaction is made necessary.

intersection

sourceEmily Badger

My belief is that this is quite like the adoption of social principles in business.

Go read the whole thing, where I lay out Boyd’s Law, among other things.

Metcalfe’s Law, Reed’s Law, Boyd’s Law: A Post From 2003

[originally posted on Aug 20, 2006. I dug out of the archives because of the Knight News Challenge on Networks, which refers to Reed’s Law. It’s still topical reading.]

Back in 2003, at my old, old blog, Timing, I wrote a post, that laid out the basis of Reed’s Law, which is now relevant because of the of the recent IEEE Metcalfe’s Law brouhaha. Fred Wilson recently noted that he wished that Metcalfe had enlarged his arguments to include Reed’s Law. So I unearthed this from the time vaults:

[from Re: Social Disutility and Competition in Network Ecosystems]

Tim Oren writes about Ross Mayfield’s thoughts on ecosystems of networks.

First of all, this seems to all have grown from David Reed’s “Sneaky Exponential” piece, where he introduces Reed’s Law, and contrasts the various stages of value as the network grows. I wrote about this at some length in a recent tissue of Message.

Finding the Value of the Network: Communities

The conventional wisdom about the value of a communication network is embodied in Metcalfe’s Law, named after one of the founders of the Internet. He said that the value of a communications network grows as the square of the number of people using it, or 2 to the Nth. Metcalfe’s Law is focused on the point-to-point, pair-wise communications between individuals. It is a linear model of growth.

But this model seems wrong, and does not account for the non-linear effects of social groups. David Reed is a well-known exponent of the observation that the value of a communication network grows with the number of groups it supports.

“Reed’s law is the assertion of David P. Reed that the utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.

The reason for this is that the number of possible sub-groups of network participants is 2N, where N is the number of participants.

This grows much more rapidly than either

  • the number of participants, N, or
  • the number of possible pair connections, N(N+1)/2 (which follows Metcalfe’s law)
so that even if the utility of groups being available to be joined is very small on a per-group basis, eventually the network effect of potential group membership can dominate the overall economics of the system. (Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org)

Stated another way, any communication network’s value is best estimated by the number of groups that exist in the population of users. The value of a network like the Internet, Reed is telling us, can not be effectively measured by the number of financial transactions it can support, or the number of messages being sent through its millions of routers, or even the number of people using it at any time. The only reasonable way to measure its value is to count the number of groups that it supports, or so he asserts.

Accelerating Collaboration: Communities of Purpose

While its wonderful that Internet-enabled fans of the newest heavy metal band can swap gossip, MP3s and revealing photos, and this may enrich western civilization in some way, it may seem a long way from the factory floor or the pressing realities in the CEO’s suite. But it is exactly this sort of social interaction that forms all groups, even the most practical and purposeful, like those within the enterprise.

Turning Reed’s Law into a tool to enhance value for the enterprise may seem to some to be a bit out there, a bit too new age, like bringing in a Feng Shui geomancer to avoid building the new corporate headquarters in the wrong orientation to the Cosmos. But it is simply pragmatic. Obviously, work gets down by groups, Obviously, you want to harness the value of closer, more productive relationships with partners, suppliers, and customers. And, yes, it is becoming obvious that any significant enterprise performance improvements will require interactions with people – and applications – outside the enterprise.

Tim Oren’s final observations — that people generally contribute significantly to around 2.5 groups, and that groups hit size limits (the Dunbar 150 person max rule) — return to the core theme of social groups and network value. Size does matter. People can only meaningfully be involved with a limited number of groups, and groups lose group cohesion after some ceiling is reached.

But the value of the network is a function of the number of groups supported, even if the membership of each group is bounded. The flexibility associated with group transience is an additional factor — so it’s not just a static equation, its a non-linear flow equation. All of the laws that Reed compares — Sarnoff, Metcalfe, and Reed — are statically defined.

In a recent report I wrote for Cutter (now in production) I argue that real-time groups create value for companies as an extension or corollary of Reed’s Law, which I humbly have dubbed Boyd’s Law. Ahem.

As companies seek to increase their individual responsiveness and decrease the impacts of volatility in their markets, they will increase their synchronous communications with partners, but the net effect will be an increase in asynchronous operations of the meta-enterprise.

This seeming paradox is simply explained. A real time enterprise will have more frequent communication with its partners – passing information from application to application, or conducting real time communication between members of real time communities – and as a result, the latency in information transfer decreases.

This means that companies in the meta-enterprise are free to act on this lower latency information earlier, increasing overall performance across the meta-enterprise. Or put another way, decreasing latency in the individual communication events translates into higher probabilities of increased parallelism in the overall network. This emergent property of increased real time communication in networks is exactly the value creation David Reed was getting at.

In human terms, and leaving the queuing theory aside, this value increase grows from the power of social groups. It’s not quasi-mystical chaos theory – it’s just practical.

So, you have to look at other factors, not just size, or even who is a member, but things like the tools being used to communicate in order to understand the components of value arising from social interaction.

And today, in 2006, it’s even stranger to see some IEEE article attempting to peg the value of a network on some sort of stock market economics, as opposed to the utility of the network in practice: the value created for individuals, groups, and the network denizens as a whole.

[And today, in 2012, I am totally unsurprised that folks are still referring back to statically defined rules instead of something like what I was poking at in 2003: Boyd’s Law. I would now define it this way, taking the perspective of the value of a person in a social network:

The value of any new node in a network — and in social networks, a node is a person — can be characterized as the increase in network-wide parallelism caused by the connections the new node establishes.

Nine years later.]

Overload, Shmoverload: The Myth Of Personal Productivity

The newest attack on connectedness and whole brain attention is here, spouting conventional wisdom as gospel:

[from Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast by Matt Richtel]

The onslaught of cellphone calls and e-mail and instant messages is fracturing attention spans and hurting productivity. It is a common complaint. But now the very companies that helped create the flood are trying to mop it up.

[…]

Their effort comes as statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.

The big chip maker Intel found in an eight-month internal study that some employees who were encouraged to limit digital interruptions said they were more productive and creative as a result.

[…]

Many people readily recognize that they face — or invite — continual interruption, but the emerging data on the scale of the problem may come as a surprise.

A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to one measure by RescueTime, a company that analyzes computer habits. The company, which draws its data from 40,000 people who have tracking software on their computers, found that on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day.

The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work.

Ok. Let’s take it from the top. I will just mention in passing that a company called Rescuetime is unlikely to structure any study at any time that ever suggests that anything other than personal productivity should be important to management. Basex seems to be following the same miserly chain of thought, as well.

My rebuttal:

Personal productivity — While people may think the appropriate unit of measuring the benefits of social tools is personal productivity, it isn’t.

As we have moved from hierarchical, top-down, centralized work — think Henry Ford’s assembly lines or the pre-Internet global corporation — to networked, bottom-up, edgewise work personal productivity has been trumped by network productivity. Network productivity is the effectiveness of a person’s entire network: contacts, contacts of contacts, and so on.

Connected people will naturally gravitate toward an ethic where they will trade personal productivity for connectedness: they will interrupt their own work to help a contact make progress. Ultimately, in a bottom-up fashion, this leads to the network as a whole making more progress than if each individual tries to optimize personal productivity. (Trust me, its provable. I studied queuing theory in graduate school.) I call this Boyd’s Law, by the way.

Perhaps more importantly, the willingness to assist others leads to closer social connections, and increases the likelihood of reciprocal behavior, where an obsession with personal productivity does not.

"Some" found they were more productive and creative by minimizing interruptions — I am in favor of people having time away from others, to do all sorts of things. Sleeping, writing, playing the guitar, sex — there are an unending set of things that people should do while disconnected.

However, while I advocate disconnecting for these reasons, I am remain convinced that the bias should be toward remaining connected to the greatest degree that allows individuals the time apart and disconnected that they need to make sense of the world through creative and contemplative pursuits, and no more.

My argument is not really about the downside of missing something flowing by the torrent of information everyday, nor is it about being a busy little bee working like mad on some sort of modern information assembly line. It is about the psychological, spiritual, and work benefits of connection. Note that for these to hold, people will have to learn to be much more judicious in the determination of who — and how many — they will connect with. The willingness to swap personal productivity for connection is just that: it is an ethical choice that asserts that the bonds of connection, today and over time, are more important — not just abstractly, but in the most concrete way — than making headway on this piece of work, right now.

On a work basis, businesses today want it (or think they want it) both ways. They want their employees to be personally productive, making the classic logical error that if everyone is highly productive personally then the company will be. Nope.

But at the same time, the company is still arrogating to itself control of connections. Most obviously, a worker can’t really choose who to work with, which projects are most interesting, which bosses are worth listening to, and so on. Like pigeons pecking a button in a Skinner box, the enterprise gives its workers an on/off switch but little other control.

Can workers opt to ‘block’ messages from dumb managers? Can they direct email that they are cc’d on to the spam filter? No. But they should.

Participation costs — Yes, it is true that moving from one full brain task to a different full brain task has a high cost of participation, especially for some one who doesn’t transition from task to task on a regular basis. However, learning to operate in a flow mindstate, where partial attention is being paid to “partial tasks”, can lead to the transitions costing less at each interruption.

Consider the case where I am doing something involving frequent mental churn, like reading and responding to email. If I get involved in a series of parallel instant messaging sessions at the same time, the apparent costs of switching from one to the other fall, just like being involved in a discussion with a bunch of people at a cocktail party.

Or like the highway on the way to work: you have to deal with many cars as you commute. That’s the way it is. While it is true that your commute would be quicker with no other cars on the road: well, sorry, that’s not the way the world works. Of course, you might argue that to the degree that it is in your control, you should minimize the number of cars you expose yourself to. But the counter argument is that we need to expose ourselves to the challenges that we need to face, in order to gain the skills necessary to survive, or excel. Just like we are now learning that we need to expose our kids to a reasonable amount of dirt, so they get exposed to enough bacteria that they don’t grow up like autoimmune-challenged lab rats, suffering from every allergy under the sun.

The old school thinking is about individual productivity: but the social revolution has moved past that into network productivity, which entails connectedness and social meaning. The personal hit on productivity is real, but it’s not a cost: it’s an investment; and the juice is worth the squeeze.

And in the case of the conversational swarm at the cocktail party: you may think it would be more productive to have just one-on-one conversations — to focus mindfully on one friend at a time — but the reality is more complex. There can be a significantly greater spark when a diverse collection of people are involved in a swapping of views on some subject, or even a collection of related subjects. You can learn more, experience more, gain more, although there is a greater level of mental gymnastics involved.

This doesn’t detract from the benefits of one-on-one conversation, but does suggest that we need exposure to larger group interactions to learn how to participate in and benefit from them. Just like we need to drive on busy streets to learn to drive safely, and finally, to learn to drive safely while listening to the radio and carrying on a conversation with someone in the passenger’s seat.

As we become habituated to media — like the radio in the car — we can remain aware of it with out dedicating our full attention to it. This has taken time to trickle through to popular culture. The same change is at work in business.

I have said for years that the centroids — media, religion, government, and corporations — would war against connectedness and the flow consciousness that is needed to operate in the new social Web. It is inherently subversive, because at its core flow is about remaining connected to those that matter to you over the more formal and official relationships that individuals are supposed to have with organizations.

The small shift of consciousness that comes from remaining in the flow setting — messages and posts flitting by, dozens of chats, firing off quick updates to your circles of contacts — seems like the devil to the advocates of industrial age thinking and practices. Stop fooling around, get back to work, stop daydreaming, quit gossiping, get those coversheets on the TPS reports!

But the real issue is what is of value, and how to measure it.

The old school thinking is about individual productivity: but the social revolution has moved past that into network productivity, which entails connectedness and social meaning. The personal hit on productivity is real, but it’s not a cost: it’s an investment; and the juice is worth the squeeze.

They may say that we are getting lost in the flurry of tools we are using, but the truth is we are just moving out of their field of vision. Just like a novice watching a martial arts master, they can’t see what it is we are doing. They will have to come to the dojo for a few years, and then — maybe — they will be able to see.

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